Hopes and Fears

Forecasting the End of the Obesity Epidemic

Forecasting the natural progression of the obesity epidemic makes sense if you want to know whether anything we’re doing is having an impact. Just like a good story, every epidemic has a beginning, middle, and an end. Lately, we’ve been seeing signs that obesity’s prevalence is leveling. Policy makers who think they have the answer have been declaring that their strategies are working. But it just might be that we were headed here all along.

A talented research team led by Diana Thomas has newly published a dynamic model that forecasts overweight and obesity rates reaching their natural plateau in 2030, with the overweight, obesity, and extreme obesity stable at rates of 28%, 32%, and 9%, respectively. That represents a lower prevalence of overweight, little change in total obesity, and a higher rate of extreme obesity.

Their conclusions stand in stark contrast to the headlines generated last summer, with the publication of estimates by Eric Finkelstein and colleagues during CDC’s Weight of the Nation conference. Finkelstein forecasted a 33% increase in obesity prevalence by 2030. It’s no wonder this forecast got lots of headlines.

So, when Michelle Obama promises to reverse the course of childhood obesity in a generation or any other policymaker stakes a claim for changing the course of the epidemic, it’s worth considering: what course are we already following?

As George Harrison and the Chesire Cat knew, if we don’t know where we’re going, any road will get us there.

Likewise, just about any prevention strategy might seem to work for obesity in the absence of careful analysis.

Click here to read the Thomas study and click here to read last year’s forecast by Finkelstein.

Hopes and Fears, photograph © Ray Yuen / flickr. A fortune message tied on a blessing rack inside a temple.

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